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UW Hockey News and Notes: Smith to return to Wisconsin

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One day after the 2010-2011 Wisconsin men's hockey team's season came to an end, Badger sophomore center Craig Smith told reporters he was leaning towards returning to school for his junior season. In a post season sit down with UW head coach Mike Eaves, Smith was adamant that he would be back for another year. After being selected to participate in the IIHF World Championships, he reiterated his plans to return to Madison. After registering six points in seven games at the World Championships, which was good for second on Team USA in scoring behind former Badger center Derek Stepan, he once again stated that he would be spending at least one more season in cardinal and white.

Sure, it may seem excessive that Smith is seemingly asked if he still plans on returning to school every other week but with the off season he's had, the Badger staff should be rubbing his feet on a daily basis to make sure their star pivot keeps his commitment to return to school. It's hard to put Smith's performance at the World Championships into context as it's such a rare case. Not often are college players invited to join Team USA for the tournament and no one in recent memory has put up anything close to what Smith did at the tournament and returned to school.

Smith's consistent reiteration of his plans to return to Madison show maturity for a player that at times on the ice has lacked it. Returning for his junior season would put the Badgers in a position to contend for the MacNaughton Cup which is awarded to the WCHA regular season champion and possibly more. With Smith in the fold, Wisconsin returns 6 out of their top 10 leading scorers from last season including the top two point producers. Not since the 2005-2006 season has UW returned their top 2 leading scorers from the previous season. For those in need of a history lesson, the Badgers won the National Championship that season.

For more Badger news and notes, follow after the jump.

*****-Craig Custance from the Sporting News had a feature this past week on young players who can build on their strong World Championship performances. Derek Stepan and Craig Smith were both mentioned.

"I didn’t realize how good Derek Stepan was," (USA head coach Scott) Gordon told Sporting News. "He was pretty impressive not just from a point standpoint but his hockey intelligence. He’s the whole package."

"He (Craig Smith) played really well," (Nashville assistant GM Paul) Fenton said. "When he first-started playing (USA hockey’s Jim Johannson) said ‘Holy Mackerel, you were right about this kid.’"

*****-People close to the Wisconsin men's hockey program continue to speculate that the Badgers are not done recruiting for next season. It sounds as if Mike Eaves is still looking to bring in another defenseman for next fall. Right now the #1 target is Burnsville high school blueliner Eddie Wittchow. Wittchow visited campus recently and told me that he loved it but had not made a decision yet on his future.

A well documented Badger fan growing up, Wittchow is weighing his options on his offer to join the Badgers straight out of high school next season or play a year in the USHL first where he was recently selected in the first round (4th overall) by Waterloo.

If WIttchow decides to play next season in the USHL I've heard that the Badgers have a couple of different back up options so it looks like most likely the Badgers will end up rolling with nine defensemen next season. Justin Schultz, John Ramage, Frankie Simonelli, Joe Faust and freshman Jake McCabe are all expected to be regulars on the blue line next season. Eric Springer, Chase Drake, freshman Patrick Daly will all battle for the sixth d-man spot.

*****-Speaking of the USHL, they recently completed their draft and a number of Wisconsin born players were selected. Danny Scherer, from Nashotah, WI who played in the NAHL with Amarillo was taken 12th overall. Formerly played for the Milwaukee Jr. Admirals. Alexander Dahl from Eau Claire, WI (Memorial) and brother of UW forward Jefferson was taken by Youngstown in the second round.

Other Wisconsin players: Michael Kapla (EC Memorial) 82nd to Sioux City, Matthew Purmal (Merrill, Marquette Electricians) 143rd to Lincoln, Austin Vieth (Marinette, Notre Dame Academy) 226th to Chicago, Todd Koritzinsky (Middleton) 243rd to Youngstown, Kyle Schmidt (Menomonee Falls, Milwaukee Jr Admirals) 245th to Waterloo, and Travis Wood (Hudson, Hill Murray HS) 262nd to Sioux City.

*****-Former Badgers Robbie Earl (Houston Aeros) and Kyle Klubertanz (Hamilton Bulldogs) are squaring off in the AHL's Western Conference Finals. Klubertanz's Hamilton Bulldogs beat Earl's Aeros tonight in overtime to force a game 7. Klubertanz has 2 assists in the series to bring his playoff total to 10 points in 19 games (all assists). Earl has 2 goals and an assist in the series to bring his playoff total to 10 points in 17 games (5 goals, 5 assists). Game 7 will be played Tuesday night.

*****-The Big Ten conference recently held their annual meetings and the future Big Ten Hockey Conference's year end tournament was an item of discussion. The powers that be are looking at two different proposals. According to Wisconsin State Journal beat writer Andy Baggot, these are the two ideas:

"One would focus on campus sites. The six teams would be seeded and play best-of-three series at the home of the highest seed. The lowest four seeds -- No. 6 vs. No. 3 and No. 4 vs. No. 5 -- would meet for the right to face the top two seeds in a best-of-three series. The second-round winners would meet for the championship in a best-of-three series at the home of the highest seed.

Another format would involve a neutral site, most likely the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., the United Center in Chicago or Joe Louis Arena in Detroit at the outset. The six teams would all play there with the lowest four seeds meeting for the right to face one of the top two. It's the same design currently used by the Western Collegiate Hockey Association."

*****-The Wisconsin athletic department has announced that there will be a new seating feature at the Kohl Center for hockey games next season called the Nicholas Club. According to the release the Nicholas Club features wide, theater style seats, food buffet, parking near the kohl center, and television coverage in your seat. By my count, the Nicholas Club will have 80 seats and it comes with a hefty price tag. In an average season with 9 home series, a 1 year commitment will cost over $11,000 per seat. Although keep in mind like the release says, annual contribution (minus cost of goods and services) is considered acharitable gift to the UW Foundation on behalf of the UW Athletic Department. Gift is 80% tax deductible per IRS regulations.

*****-As John Veldhuis talked about on Friday the Big Ten is considering an idea to pay their athletes to make up the difference in the true cost of college. The idea being tossed around is that each scholarship athlete would be given an extra $3-5 thousand dollars on top of their scholarship to make up for things that their scholarship doesn't cover. Currently they are covered for tuition, fees, room and board and books. The ex tra money would be used for clothes, living expenses, transportation, etc.

With the Big Ten hockey conference on the horizon, a move like this could be a game changer in college hockey recruiting. In addition to noted advantages of grouping traditional powers Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State and Minnesota together with Ohio State and Penn State and the TV contract with the Big Ten Network, athletes receiving this additional bonus for being a Big Ten athlete would be a significant recruiting advantage. Keep an eye on this story as it develops.

*****-The Third String Goalie blog recently published a report on hockey attendance across the globe. The blog compiled a list of every major hockey team in the world and ranked them by attendance. The Badger hockey team was 31st in the world in attendance this year at 13,226 per game. That number is higher than two NHL franchises (New York Islanders and Phoenix) and placed them once again number 1 among NCAA programs including Michigan who's attendance was significantly altered this season by including an extra 104,000 tickets sold for their outdoor game.

*****-North Dakota forward Jason Gregoire has decided to forgo his senior season to sign a pro contract. Gregoire would have garnered votes for the WCHA pre-season player of the year next season and would have been a favorite for the Hobey Baker. Despite being property of the New York Islanders, due to a loophole in the NHL collective bargaining agreement, Gregoire can become a free agent in 30 days and sign with any team he wishes.

Gregoire becomes the 9th WCHA player to leave with eligibility remaining and the second UND forward (Brett Hextall). Other WCHA early departures include Jake Gardiner and Jordy Murray (Wisconsin), Justin Faulk and Mike Connolly (Minnesota-Duluth), Oliver Lauridsen (St. Cloud), Aaron Ness (Minnesota), and Matt Donnovan (Denver).

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